Author Archives: Jack

Mecca Experience

I know what you’re thinking. “Don’t make me laugh! Jack on a Hajj to Mecca, shuffling off on a pilgrimage to Bethlehem, or better yet, a Greyhound to Utah?” Turns out for yours truly, a life long devotee of all things Formula 1, that would have to be Silverstone Raceway.

Oh, I’ve seen signs for Silverstone while crisscrossing the UK, usually while dicing with death on one of England’s suicidal merry-go-rounds while simultaneously attempting to change lanes and trying to read the route numbers painted on the road, avoiding the annoying little econobox that darted around beside me, downshifting while trying to find the damn turn signal, which after all is on the wrong side. Getting it wrong only adds chattering wiper blades to the chaos, with Marce counting the number of exits to tell me where to get off, all the while contemplating the odds of survival if we have to go around again. There’s no, “Hey hon, that was a sign for Silverstone back there! Maybe what with being so close and all, we should pay a visit.”

As we begin our swan song leaving the UK I said, “This is it, I will not miss at least seeing F1 Mecca.” I wasn’t sure what could actually be seen with an expensive ticket to something called the “Silverstone Experience” but again we were passing close by and it’s a take it or leave it situation. We’ve been burned by so many lame museum “experiences” that I didn’t have much hope for this one which, by rights, ought to be great but, well let’s just say that I had a hinky feeling about this one due to the complex’s well known financial shortages that they may have given short schrift to the exhibits.

We pulled into a massive empty couple of hectares of white lined macadam and it wasn’t hard to find a place for Escape Velocity. Walking up to what I assumed was the museum entrance, I wasn’t sure it was even open until I heard that sound. Once you’ve heard it you’ll never forget it. Screaming, the torture of things being shredded, terrible things emanate from these machines at an indescribable level of decibels that should never be allowed on this earth. It’s glorious and it is happening right now while we have to stop to pay the ticket lady. She’s being awfully nonchalant about how I might see what is going on out behind the museum. “Oh I think that’s Mick Schumacher testing with Mercedes today, “ she mumbles. Oh my lucky stars! Nobody is this fortunate. She says, “Usually nobody’s testing at all.”

The back story is that I’ve tried to book tickets for the British F1 Grand Prix for over two years, only to be met with derisive laughter. Yes, occasionally we are in the area and we have a motor home so we could take advantage of Silverstone’s large camping areas so why not make a weekend out of it? Turns out this is England and apparently two years in advance is the minimum lead time in a slow year and these are not slow times. We never really know where we’ll be tomorrow let alone in two years.

Silverstone held the first official Grand Prix in 1948, built using old WW2 bomber runways, as thick as flies in these parts. I can’t begin to tell you the feeling of walking on what for me is hallowed ground.

Low concrete steps are to my left as we entered the grounds, a grassy knoll follows to the right and I recognize the iconic Brooklands turn leading to Luffield and then Woodcote.

Just saying the legendary names of the corners is like mumbling an F1 rosary; Abby, Wellington, Brooklands, Copse, Maggotts, Beckets.

Suddenly I can hear the scream of the once mighty Mercedes bombing down the Wellington Straight and shockingly quick, it’s passed me.

That’s as it should be but I wasn’t fast enough to get the shot.

The pattern that afternoon would be three fast laps, one cool down lap with five to ten minute breaks in between. After all, they must have their tea.

Marce had to tear me away from trackside to go through the exhibits in the museum.

Full marks for drilling down into the weeds of interactive but arcane suspension and braking theory with safety and engine exhibits.

Some exhibits were worse for wear. The cars on display were, as expected, an odd collection of bits and bobs with a few modern F1 examples but could have been much more.

Finally we succumbed to the siren song of a snack bar, a bit of a sit down, and a chance to reflect on a “Silverstone Experience.”

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Mourne in the morning

I awoke to the pitter-patter of a frigid mountain rain dancing on Escape Velocity’s metal roof. We are not in India anymore. I pulled the comforter back over my head thinking maybe another thirty minutes would do nicely.

Coffee aboard the bus is job number one for the skipper and that’s Yours Truly. There are no more helpful inn keepers waiting to serve us a steaming hot cup of chai in the morning. Ultimately I knew that I had no choice, so I performed a particularly clumsy “flying man” maneuver in which I attempt to throw a leg over Marce, suspend myself over her without smashing anything tender and, using that knee to support my weight, spin my body a further 90 degrees which allows me to back down off our quite high bed while searching for a small interim step with my toes so I can let myself down to the floor. It’s all terribly awkward. It’s been more than six months since I asked my body to do this. Let’s just say it didn’t go well.

With our old sailing friend Alan’s help we had plugged Escape Velocity into the house mains so there was a little heat on; otherwise this would be impossible. On the other hand I just heard, “Where’s my coffee?” This question had a plaintive edge to it. “I’m so sorry about that, but coffee will be a minute or so.” Kettle on, heat turned up, and Aeropress primed.

We are here, nestled at the base of the Mourne mountains to await our appointment with the mechanic who will convert EV’s propane to a refillable system.

We’ll have him do a full service and investigate an annoying check engine light that mysteriously comes on for a while then disappears. He’ll also do a pre-MOT inspection, and we’ll run her through state sponsored inspection scheduled for the following day. All of this happens two weeks from now. Turns out most people in Northern Ireland wait months for an MOT inspection appointment. We’re lucky to have this scheduled soon.

The to-do list is long and includes our yearly frustration with British insurance regulations, filled with catch-22’s and an inability to say yes to willingly rip us off. In the meantime we’re here in this beautiful but cold and rainy corner of Northern Ireland in the lap of luxury with friends in a comfortable warm family atmosphere.

Our every instinct demands action but other than wrestling with insurance bureaucrats and totally reorganizing EV, there’s little productive to occupy our minds for the two week hiatus so we walk and try to firm up our plans for Europe.

I don’t know why we came back so early but finally we find ourselves ready for MOT inspection with the check engine light reset to off. Four different mechanics have put the van on the diagnostic computer for this intermittent warning light and every time it comes up “no fault.” In a short ceremony we beseeched the Laotian Little People to keep that check engine light off while we’re at the inspection station. They’re in charge of special dispensation for spunky fools, but they are also well known for their mischievous behavior.

Waiting in the inspection line.

As I started EV up sure enough, the check engine light came on and the inspector, leaning in the window said, “your check engine light is on.”

We’d just come from the garage and it’s been off all day. Honestly. Realizing that no one ever says that and after much schmoozing by Marce the Charmer, we felt him soften. He smiled that impish Irish grin and said, “pull her around back.”

We’re either about to be impounded or those crafty Laotian Little People have done it again. I like to think we left him feeling better about himself as well and that pesky dashboard light is now called the Engine On light. A wee dram of celebratory whiskey would go well about now, but I’m driving.

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The backwaters of Kochi

Unbeknownst to Yours Truly I’d been enrolled in still another sunrise adventure. As you Escapees well know by now, Rule #4 unequivocally states “No More Sunrise Adventures.” So why am I sitting in an Uber in the dark being pummeled by Kochi’s back roads? I think we can all agree it’s to maintain domestic tranquility.

Marce seems to be cheerful enough when the driver stops in a dirt alley and gives us that look that says, “Ride’s over.” No signs, no buildings, and no guide. False dawn reveals water and a small punt at the dead end of this unpaved alley but we’re still 20 minutes early.

Here in India you don’t expect clear signage but once again, as the sun rises above the tree tops, no one is here. After half a dozen texts and phone calls Marce reaches a very sleepy proprietor who says his guide must have gone for tea. That’s India.

Finally a harried but apologetic guide showed up with a small container of outboard fuel and after frenetically rearranging the plastic chairs onboard, he gestured toward the seats he wanted us to take.

With the sun well risen we putted away from the sea wall.

Well this is quite pleasant, if not an actual sunrise cruise. Before long we entered the backwater channels.

Marce here: This is one of the main tourist draws here in Kochi, and particularly further south in Alleppey. You can take short cruises like us, a longer overnight journey in a private houseboat, or group cruises, all in traditional wooden boats ranging from rustic to luxurious. I wanted to experience the quiet shallow waters of Kerala on our last day to bookend our month in India. We began in high octane Delhi and we’re ending on these peaceful waters.

Because our boatman was late we’ve missed the dawn and it’ll get hot too soon but the water is unrippled and we’re seeing a different slice of Indian life. It reminded me of the bayous of Louisiana.

We saw lots of birds, including a few gorgeous kingfishers, their iridescent blue feathers flashing in the morning light as they flew away before I could raise the camera. The herons, egrets, and cormorants were much more obliging.

It’s a whole different world here, with dwellings of all kinds. I’m sure the people are accustomed to the tour boats gliding past but everyone I waved to waved back.

This woman is sifting through the bottom mud with her feet for oysters and her dugout is filled to the gunnels.

We saw the evidence of fish farms in lots of places but we failed to understand our guide’s explanation so we don’t know if they’re still in operation or not.

As we glided toward more open water we saw ahead a flock of birds circling and diving near a couple of boats pulling up their nets. Of course this is a common sight, seagulls following the catch, but as we inched closer and our boatman cut the engine we realized they weren’t gulls but sea eagles, dozens of them, young, old, whistling and swarming, trying their best to share in the catch. We were transfixed. We’d never seen more than one or two at a time and we sat for many minutes taking it all in. Even our boatman watched in wonder.

For the rest of our allotted time we motored in and out of the mangroves, sometimes running aground in the shallows. We wondered what the nautical charts would look like in such a place.

We were returned to the dock at the scheduled time, with no allowance made for the fact that we’d left very late but it was getting hotter and we have packing to do and a long journey ahead of us. We couldn’t have picked a better way to end our trip.

Back early, It must be tea time.

Later that day, you know it’s time to wrap it up when Jack starts looking for local news.


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Something quite unique

Ah, this feels better. Still bloody hot but just listen to the quiet! Oh, you’ll hear the occasional car horn, but you can walk around Fort Kochi’s town square without dodging cows or their byproduct, while enjoying the huge stately Raintrees without being deafened. So that’s just what we decided to do. Think of it as orientation.

Once again we are drawn to the waterfront which features a small ferry, the usual Indian vendors and their insistent barkers.

One vendor had a large stack of red and blue boxed cap guns in front of his booth but his dispirited barker had to reload and fire a cap gun every 30 seconds or so. We were less than entertained. However, tuktuk drivers are the same wherever you are.

This chap handcrafts these clever harmoniums right in Kochi.

These boilers are evidence of past shipwrecks. It can get a little rough out on the Arabian Sea.

A walk in India will usually feature a visit to a fort and this walk is no exception. Fort Manuel of Cochin faces Kochi City across an estuary of the Arabian Sea, although no less than seven rivers empty into these waters making it quite brackish. The fort was built by the Portuguese in 1503 and it’s considered the first European fort in India. It’s hard to believe they beat the Dutch to it; they do so love a fort.

Many examples of Dutch, Portuguese, and English architecture still exist and are usually repurposed into hotels, restaurants, or art galleries.

Our main goal however is to see something described as Chinese nets which we found lining the waterfront along the shore of Fort Kochi.

They kind of remind me of the giant wooden squid-catching machines we saw in Indonesia, except those were mounted on large ungainly barges.

The crews of the Chinese nets would invite us to wobble out onto one of these things where we noticed that none of them were catching anything but flotsam.

This last guy dipped his net into the water with the same result, turned to us and demanded rupees. He seemed less than pleased with the amount.

We beat a wobbly retreat to shore. That’s the thing about India. Are they just being friendly? Or are they working an angle to cop a few rupees? In our experience usually they’re just being friendly.

Friendly or not we all gather for a spot of sun worshipping.

With the sun sinking into the Arabian Sea the temperature follows it down into the low 90°F/32°C.

It’s time to seek something interesting for dinner, which is not difficult in Kochi. I gotta go.

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Onward to Elephanta Island

Mid morning on a hazy day, we hopped out of our Uber at the Gateway to India. We quickly went through security and crossed over the huge plaza that was only just waking up, trying to find the ferry pier that goes to Elephanta Island.

The ticket taker took one look at us and without a word motioned down a ramp leading towards a ferry that looked already full.

We sat down on a flat orange liferaft. One minute later we were backing out of the slip. Someone said, “I hope this is going to Elephanta Island.” I hope so too, I smiled, and said, “Well, that was well planned.”

The ferry was barely making five knots through the harbor but I didn’t care. I had entered my happy place, in a boat on the ocean. Although it would be hard to find a more industrialized harbor.

We motored for about an hour. After disembarking we found you could wait in a line to buy a ticket, then wait in another line to board a tiny train to ride the one kilometer to the base of the hill. Or you could walk down the long pier past dozens of chatty venders where “no thanks” doesn’t seem to translate. I don’t know about you but running into a row of palanquins at the base of the hill to schlep some putz up to the top was a shock. Can you imagine?

This is where the vendor density and the pitch of the stairs increased exponentially and before long I no longer had the breath to say “no thanks.” I just grimaced and slowly plodded up.

When we gained the summit we found an unoccupied bench in the shade and sat for a while, breathing deeply and finishing the water bottle.

After our vision cleared we realized we were at the entrance to the main cave. The monkeys realized we had a small bag with a few snacks and we sensed they were planning something nefarious.

Time to visit the caves.

It’s hard to believe this was chiseled out of solid rock in the 5th century.

The main cave is 39 meters deep and over 9 meters tall so it’s no small thing.

Every cave had a phallic symbol, don’t know why.

Resting under a fine shade tree, enjoying a nice hill top breeze we still made sure we knew what the monkeys were up to.

A large multigenerational family near us were not as alert and sure enough we heard a scream and saw a monkey zoom up the tree with a very large Tupperware container filled with what was to be their entire family’s picnic lunch. These families take picnicking seriously. He balanced the tub in the crook of the tree and at his leisure picked through the best stuff. They all stood under the tree watching helplessly as the monkey would occasionally drop something. I don’t think they’re getting that plastic tub back either.

On the way back to the boat we stopped for a late lunch at an open air restaurant with a view. I do so enjoy a good view.

The press of humanity coming up was much more intense now and once again I’m reminded of the 1.4 billion humans that call this place home. Back at the end of the pier we found a ferry just beginning to load so this time we got a seat.

Now we had to motor into a light breeze but the Arabian Sea remained benign and aside from watching a huge container ship creep ever closer to us, we reached the harbor in just over an hour.

Before long the skipper had us tied up to the pier.

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Kumbhalgarh Fort

Ok, Adventure Seekers, it’s time for another UNESCO pilgrimage to a far-flung isolated Indian hilltop fort. This one features 52 miles, three hours of shake ‘n’ bake on high heat in the back of a four door speck called a Suzuki to the world’s second longest continuous wall called “The Great Wall of India.” We all know who’s got the longest.

Once again we start out with the familiar early morning Old Town zigzag and footbridge shuffle to the pickup area where the authorities allow cars. Prem, our driver, was waiting by his car which featured most of the correct pieces commonly associated with a functioning automobile, although it did turn out to be prone to overheating but then again who doesn’t overheat in India?

On the way out of town the pigs with horns were at it again.

The roads are a haphazard combination of nearly first world divided highway alternating with a dirt and gravel moonscape. It’s India, and as you pass by you get the sense that it’s the same as it ever was.

This alternating road/no road pattern persisted. Prem said, “come back in a year and this will be all new beautiful road.” The lack of any evidence of anyone actually working on the road might be discouraging but that’s India.

The large infrastructure needed to handle monsoon rain looks oversized in the dry season.

Well into the mountains, I sensed that we were getting close. Besides, it’s been nearly three hours. There’s hardly a hill that doesn’t have some sort of fortification on top and Kumbhalgarh Fort certainly follows that paradigm.

Prem dropped us off at the mighty gate where the monkeys were doing their usual naughty hi-jinx tricks.

The scale of this monster fort is overwhelming.

In a fit of patriotic pride Prem proudly told us the fort was never attacked but in a rare bout of professional enthusiasm, Yours Truly has already done the research for our Escapees and found that while many had tested themselves against these walls, most failed. Built in the 15th century by Rana Kumbha, the 38km wall did its job, or as some believed, maybe it was the divine intervention of the 360-odd temples contained within the walls. It seems Mughal Emperor Akbar the Great failed by attacking directly so he poisoned the fort’s well water. I think that we can all agree that really doesn’t count.

It’s said that 8 horses can walk side by side on the wall.

We started the climb after buying an extra bottle of water. The sun was directly overhead and scorching.

Marce found the only shady spot in the whole climb.

It’s a magnificent view from the top of Kumbhalgarh, but every party has a shelf life and Prem wants to show us a Jain Temple on the way back.

Prem’s enthusiasm has us rocketing over dirt back roads in the outback of India. Apparently we stayed a little too long at the fort.

An hour later we arrived. It seems shoes can’t come any closer than 100 meters to the Ranakpur Jain Temple. Interesting architecture but the damn asphalt is burning hot.

I’ll admit that Prem was right about the Ranakpur Jain Temple but how do I find my shoes?

Back on the road Prem suddenly stopped and backed up. He turned to us and motioned toward the side of the road. We were in the middle of nowhere. In a scene as old as time, we witnessed two buffalo turning a waterwheel which lifted water up to a trough. Not a show or a demonstration but an everyday need being met with what they have. An old Tahitian friend, when happening upon a scene like this, would exclaim, “It’s authentique!”

It’s India.

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The ogre on the hill

We noticed that there has been a hulking presence over Old town, Udaipur. High on a hill across the river, perched above old town and clinging to the rocks lies the imposing City Palace. You can’t look at the lake without noticing it.

Today we will wind our way to the footbridge.

Crossing over the Chand Pole footbridge we began to dodge the kamikaze motorbikes and tuktuks to climb the steep hill to the crest and that’s when the plan went pear shaped. We beheld the worst tuktuk/motorcycle gridlock — if you can use the word grid in Udaipur — we’ve ever seen. I honestly didn’t think it was possible.

We couldn’t even get through walking as we endured a cacophony of honking. After 20 minutes of this we found a roundabout way by climbing over and moving several motorbikes. Crazy. At the bottom of that hill we faced a long climb up to the City Palace Gates.

Small favors, they’ve removed the lower spikes

Without signs for any guidance we more or less followed the flow.

After a few people, desperately licking their melting ice cream cones in the heat, motioned which direction to head, we found ourselves in a kind of armaments museum.

Indian army knife

I don’t know, I guess I had anticipated more of a palacey kind of thing but their weapons of war were quite artistically presented and how can you ask for more?

Next we were herded into the more refined sections of the palace.

Doors carved from solid ivory

How they made these courtyards so quiet and peaceful I’ll never know

Soon it was time to head back across the river for a sunset from the roof.

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The journey to Amber

In a very real sense the story of Amber Palace (or is it a fort?) is a story of journeying. Ours started with a call from what we can only surmise was our Uber driver who only said “Yes” when asked who was calling. He called four more times just saying “yes” each time. Our Hindi is a little rusty, but then again they speak dozens of different dialects here on the subcontinent, so who knows? You have to admire his persistence if not his complete lack of any functional English.

His name was Mohan. He wasn’t unusual looking in any way, short, slight, 120 to 130 lbs. But the car, have mercy, the car lacked even one single panel that wasn’t smashed, dented, scratched, gouged, punched in, hanging down or taped up.

They say that beauty’s only skin deep but ugly is through to the bone. No matter what Mohan tried he could only force the transmission into 1st gear maybe 5 percent of the time, which left us trying to start out in second or even third, slowly bucking down the road, horns blaring while his horn barely made a wheezing, worn out anemic meeeep. Still, he drove down the road like everybody in India, with one hand permanently beeping the horn and the other one on the steering wheel when it wasn’t knuckle deep up his nose that is, or when he leaned over to spit out the window. It was a lot to ignore.

Not far from our guesthouse we passed these guys which reminded me that I frequently saw a huge camel in town rigged to a large wheeled flatbed trailer with two dudes aboard, one with something you’d have to call a camel prod, traveling at a high rate of speed through traffic. The camel towered over the cars and tuktuks, which basically got out of the way as fast as possible.

Now where was I? Oh yes. We finally arrived at the Amber Palace gate where we attempted to determine where we’d meet Mohan after we were finished exploring the Palace since he couldn’t park anywhere near the entrance. I really thought we’d never see him again.

There was nothing left but to hit the steps.

The stairs were not a real test for your temple-tested Escapees but the sun always takes its toll.

Nearing the top elephants joined our path leaving more obstacles to avoid.

Ducking through the gate we entered a huge expanse of open courtyard.

Up one last staircase and you could see the palace take shape.

My favorite was the Hall of Private Audience where the envoys of other rulers would be received. Private grievance could also be adjudicated with the powers that be. Nice touch. The glasswork is amazing for 1621.

We only booked Mohan for 7 hours so it was back down the hill for your intrepid Escapees.

At the gate there was no Mohan but we could see the car’s location on the Uber app a short walk away. Marce texted him and he came up to meet us.

Every high point in the area had some sort of fortification perched on top.

We’d been looking forward to this next stepwell, but it was a really a harrowing narrow circuitous alley down into this remarkable valley.

It’s hard to imagine that during the monsoon season these wells were filled to overflowing. Not anymore, sadly, for a variety of environmental and maintenance reasons.


Back up another mountain to Fort Narhargarh and a more organic flowing stepwell.

Well that’s a wrap for a rather ambitious day and if I’m any judge Mohan has had more than enough, too.


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Palace of Winds

The tuktuk suddenly stopped and the driver indicated that we were to vacate his vehicle. No problem, I’ve been thrown out of better vehicles than a tuktuk. We piled out, and let me tell you this is something that can’t be done gracefully, and looked around. Typical of India there is no indication of where to go or how to enter. Nada.

First we had to find a little hole in the wall that sells the Holy Grail ticket that lets you into several venues we’re interested in at a discount. Frankly it was time to just start walking and trust your spidey sense to sus out the lay of the land.

Sure it can take some time, but it’s always the last place you look.

Now we have to find out how to get into the palace. Palace may not be the proper name for a place that has a beautiful grand facade that is actually the back of the thing, with no obvious way to enter. Eventually we stumble onto the ticket takers at a humble entrance in the side of the building.

The Hawa Mahal, started in 1778, is the tallest building in the world without a foundation. It’s adjacent to the City Palace and was built to allow the royal ladies to observe the activities of the street below while remaining hidden.

There are five stories, named but not numbered. Five floors but no stairs, only India’s famous ribbed ramps were used throughout. A few steps were added later.

You enter on the level called Sharad Mandir through a doorway that opens onto a large courtyard where celebratory gatherings took place.

Ratan Mandir floor dazzles with colorful glasswork in the walls.

The Vichitra Mandir floor was reserved for the Maharaja, a kind of private temple to worship his personal favorite, Krishna.

Prakash Mandir floor is an open terrace.

The top floor is called Hawa Mahal which gives the palace its name. This is where approximately all 105 of the Maharaja’s harem were kept.

The ladies were never to leave the building or be seen…well I’m thinking except for the Maharaja.

The ladies had hundreds of little peek-a-boo hatches, called jharokas to surreptitiously gaze out at street life far below without being seen.

A lot of thought went into keeping air flowing throughout the building using open courtyards and latticework everywhere. There is a marked difference in temperature from outside.

Secret passageways were everywhere and some of the little jharokas were used to spy on each other and guests.

After a brief intermission Marce sat in with the band.

A small museum of bas relief and sculpture from Amber Palace really sets the party scene.

The Maharaja copied from an early portrait

Then it’s exit in the same weird way you enter.

The back of the Palace of Wind from the front street.

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Beauty and the beast

Dicing with death in Agra’s afternoon traffic our tuktuk driver was getting frustrated and aggressive, laying on his horn more or less continuously. Beeeeep beeeeep beeeeep beep beep is his prefered signature honk and that tattoo, with subtle variations, is repeated by hundreds of vehicles in this tangled town.

Every bazaar has a table loaded with replacement horns. Of course some are upgrading to programmed horns that play bits of songs. Have mercy on us.

We’re heading toward the mammoth hulking Agra Fort. A real beast of a fort, although we’re told that there’s also a palace inside. The fort grounds are roughly a mile and a half in circumference, crescent shaped and surrounded by a moat. The walls rise 70 feet from the entrance. Akbar started the fort in 1565 and periodically lived there.

The white marble palace within the fort is a marked contrast to the red walls that protect it. It’s certainly not as finely detailed as the Taj Mahal (and not as well kept) but it looks like it was a nice place to live.

Out on one of the terraces you can see the Taj Mahal in the city.

Every day someone will try to either sneak a selfie or ask for one. I feel like I’m probably stuck on someone’s refrigerator. Marce definitely is. All the women want a photo with her, individually and in groups. Is it the white hair?

Emperor Jahangir’s granite tub

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